Scottish independence: Labour should recognise Scotland’s sovereignty and the SNP should accept there will be no ‘clean break’ – Joyce McMillan

The Oxford Dictionary of phrase and fable defines Stockholm Syndrome as “feelings of trust or affection felt… by a victim towards a captor”; and after the events of the past week in British politics, it’s hard not to detect signs of the Stockholm effect in that section of the British public – at least a third, and probably more – who still remain attached to the government of Boris Johnson.

Scottish Labour party leader Anas Sarwar should recognise Scotland’s sovereignty as a nation, while the SNP should realise there is no clean break to be had (Picture: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)
Scottish Labour party leader Anas Sarwar should recognise Scotland’s sovereignty as a nation, while the SNP should realise there is no clean break to be had (Picture: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)

The Partygate affair, of course, represents a particularly brutal episode of abusive and disrespectful behaviour towards the British people, at the height of the Covid pandemic; but the abuse hardly stops there.

Exhausted by 15 years of flatlining pay and insecure work, impoverished by low pensions and inadequate benefits, lied to over Brexit, hit by one of the highest Covid death tolls in western Europe, robbed of many key freedoms and liberties, and now clobbered by wealthy energy companies permitted to impose outrageous power-bill increases, the British public is fast becoming the abused wife of European politics; first beaten up, then expected to blub with gratitude whenever the government offers – as it finally did this week – a “rescue” package from the systemic injustices it has itself created.

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All of which makes it the more saddening, this week, to note an opinion poll showing that support for Scottish independence, having slipped back slightly in recent months, is now at exactly the same level as at the referendum of 2014, with just over 45 per cent of those polled saying “yes”, and just under 55 per cent saying no.

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Sad, because it is pretty self-evident, to anyone who takes a step back and looks at the map, that Scotland – as an energy-rich country on Europe’s north-western edge – would now be in a far better place both economically and psychologically if it had decided decades ago to take the same path as Finland, Denmark or Ireland, all countries with a similar population to Scotland, and fewer natural resources, now among the most prosperous and democratic in the world; and sad, also, because it is frankly humiliating for a country which has never voted Conservative in the last 60 years to be represented by a government such as Boris Johnson’s.

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We start, however, from where we are; and what is immediately observable is how this split, like all such roughly equal divisions, disempowers the people of Scotland, and above all disables the huge Scottish majority of people who want to live in a 21st century social democracy from acting together to achieve that aim.

That failure to work together has been particularly obvious this week, when Labour’s lingering hatred of the SNP has led it into arrangements with Liberal Democrats and Conservatives to force the SNP into opposition in several major Scottish local authorities, including Edinburgh City Council, where the SNP are the largest party; and it seems that Scottish Labour is doing this because the party leadership in both London and Scotland now believes, in true diehard style, that “defending the Union” is a higher priority than building an alliance for social democracy and social justice.

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The breaking of the political deadlock in Scotland, in other words, would involve all parties – and particularly the SNP and Labour – climbing out of their constitutional trenches, and beginning to talk positively about the future they want to see, not only for Scotland itself, but for these islands as a whole, here in western Europe.

There should be a strong bedrock of agreement between Keir Starmer’s Labour Party and the SNP about what kind of future that should be, in policy terms: social democratic in approach, respectful of international law, and eager, one way or another, to repair the damage of Brexit, and restore positive and frictionless trading relationships with our nearest neighbours.

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On the constitution, I can see no reason, given the Labour movement’s strong home rule tradition, why Labour should not recognise Scotland’s formal sovereignty as a nation, while working to continue co-operation in areas such as foreign policy and defence.

There will be sticking-points, of course, notably the UK’s nuclear deterrent; but if Labour’s intransigent defence of a reactionary Boris Johnson-type Union could be eased, a much more productive conversation would immediately become possible.

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That easing, though, would also demand a similar change of language from the SNP; and that may be difficult to manage indeed, given current high levels of frustration in the independence movement.

It is time for genuine supporters of independence to recognise, though, just how reluctant voters seem to be, even under this UK Government, to initiate further disruptive change at a time of such global instability, including major supply-chain threats, a continuing pandemic, and the first war in northern Europe for almost 80 years.

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What the SNP now needs fully to acknowledge, in other words, is that Scotland’s future will always be bound up with the politics and economics of these islands, and of England, as by far the most populous nation, and that there is no “clean break” to be had here, however much some might wish it.

It certainly seems clear to me that for its own practical and psychological well-being, Scotland would now do well to assert its sovereignty and its embrace of possible independence, as a necessary starting point for the negotiation of future relationship based not on insult and exploitation – “too wee, too poor, too stupid, but we still need your gas and renewables” – but rather on mutual respect.

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What Scottish sovereignty might truly mean, though, in 21st century terms, is something that has yet to be negotiated. And that conversation will only begin when the twin big parties of Scottish social democracy start to talk to one another about the positive futures they want; instead of further pursuing the destructive and damaging fiction – true only in the narrowest electoral terms – that they are each other’s greatest political enemies.

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